Skip to main content

Why Foreign Missions? 20o Did Paul Want His Churches to Engage in Ongoing, Active Evangelism?

Why Foreign Missions? 20o Did Paul Want His Churches to Engage in Ongoing, Active Evangelism?

Fairly recently (2006), Robert Plummer has surveyed various arguments regarding whether evangelism was, for the apostle Paul, essentially the task of certain persons called to the task and not the Christian communities in the early Church, or whether the early churches were expected to pick up the task themselves and not leave it only to apostles and evangelists.[1]  Plummer himself argues for the latter view, as I also did in my dissertation in 1989.[2]  His book offers a detailed and extensive survey and discussion.

What follows is a look at two opposing views on the issue.  W. Paul Bowers argues that evangelism was the task of certain people called to this ministry,[3] whereas P. T. O’Brien argues that Paul expected local churches to engage in evangelism as well.[4]  The arguments are presented in a tabular form for ease of comparison.  A key issue in this discussion is whether church evangelism should be understood as centripetal (passive evangelism, a winsome church accepting people from outside) or centrifugal (active evangelism, a church’s members going out to try to evangelise others).  I would suggest that this distinction is awkward, however, and is part of the problem in the debate.  Both might be intentional, each can overlap with the other, and both may exist simultaneously.  Many churches can be defined in both ways, and why should they not also in Paul’s day too?  Yet the proof is not in what we can entertain in theory but in what we actually find in the Biblical texts.  Here, then, is part of the debate.

W. Paul Bowers
P. T. O’Brien
Were Paul’s converts expected to evangelise?

1 Cor. 9 - 10 [Paul foregoes his apostolic freedom and authority in the interest of saving others; the strong in the church should do likewise with respect to the weak regarding the issue of food sacrificed to idols]

2 Cor. 5.18-6.2: All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, "At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation." Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Paul’s example of self-renunciation in ch. 9 and his call not to become a hindrance to others as they are attracted to the Gospel is not an example of centrifugal (outward force, as in active evangelism) but centripetal (inward force, as in passive evangelism)  evangelism.

Reconciliation is Paul’s ministry to the Corinthians, not theirs to their neighbours.

1 Cor. 10.31-11.1; cf. 9.19-23: Paul’s ‘goal of saving many was an essential element in the pattern he set before them (9.19)  and should be their objective as well as his own.  Paul expected them to be committed to evangelism as he was (even if along different lines) and his ambitions were to be theirs’ (p. 112).  This goal is not peculiarly apostolic.  1 Cor. 10.33: ‘so that they may be saved’ is a concern for the Corinthians to hold in their relationships [cf. 1 Cor. 7.16].
Did Paul conceive of the church as something growing?

1 Cor. 3.9b-15:  For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw -- 13 each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Eph. 4.16: from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.
Not through intentional evangelism by the churches themselves.  Churches grow in faith, not numerically (so also Col. 1.10; 2.19) In Colossians, numerical growth is due to Paul’s work or other individuals, not to the churches’ work.
When Paul speaks of God’s people as a ‘church’, temple, bride, body and so forth, he has in mind their relationship with God, not with respect to the world.  Thus the local church is not seen as engaged in active outreach to the world; ‘church’ refers to God’s people gathered for worship, fellowship, edification.  But this does not mean that these same people do not engage in evangelism, whether as individual Christians or in fellowship with other Christians.
Paul seems to have depicted his churches as involved in evangelism

1 Th. 1.8: For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.

‘Sounding forth’ may refer to the Gospel taking root in the believers in Thessalonica, not to a proclamation to unbelievers.
Rom. 1.8: First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. (RSV)
I.e., everybody knows they are faithful (not evangelism)

Rom. 1.1-17: ‘the dynamic of the gospel’s logic meant for believers a deeper commitment to its ongoing, powerful advance, as well as to the person who was at its centre.  Those who had truly experience the saving power of the gospel in their own lives and had the assurance of deliverance from the wrath to come on the final day, could not be anything other than debtors to those for whom Christ died–just as Paul himself was a debtor’ (p. 112; cf. Ch. 3).
2 Cor. 3.2: You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men;
This is not evangelistic.

Col. 4.5: ‘Walk wisely before those outside by making the most of the time (or opportunity).  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you might know how you ought to answer every one.’ (My translation).  The interpretation of the text revolves around evxagorazo,menoi and avpokri,nesqai.
This is centripetal, not centrifugal, in force.

This is evangelistic.
Philippians 1

1.5: thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

1.14 - 18: and most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.

1.27: Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel....

1.30: engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.

2.16: holding fast [or ‘offering’--evpe,contej] the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
Churches might participate in the Pauline mission through prayer and finances because of their relationship with him, but they do not undertake their own mission (Bowers, Studies, p. 118).
Phl. 1.14-18: Paul is pleased to see Christ preached even if through improper motives.  This passage points to an active participation in evangelism– proclaiming Christ–by individuals (not by a whole church as a church).

Phl. 1.5, 27, 30; 2.16
These texts point to the Philippians’ commitment to proclaiming the Gospel.   O’Brien: Paul is speaking of individuals in the church engaging in active evangelism.

Phl. 1.5: ‘partnership in the gospel’ does not mean a passive participation in the gospel but an active promotion of the gospel (O’Brien, p. 116).  This goes beyond their financial help in Paul’s mission, referred to in v. 3 and 4.15-18.  Phl. 1.27, 30 expands the content of this participation:
*Phl. 1.27, 30: contending for the faith of the gospel:
 sunaqle,w: with V. C. Pfitzner,[5] O’Brien sees this as a reference to the spread and growth of the faith (p. 117).
Here we see the church’s involvement in mission not in Paul’s mission (he is in Rome in prison) but in Philippi.  The ‘struggle’ (avgw/n) is the advance of the gospel.
Phl. 2.15 - 16: that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,  16 holding fast [or offering, evpe,cw] the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain (RSV)
‘Shining as lights’ in a crooked and perverse generation is, to the extent it is evangelistic at all, centripetal (drawing people in rather than going out to evangelise them).
 evpe,cw: ‘hold fast’ not ‘hold forth’: standing firm against attacks from outside.  This, together with other passages in Paul (1 Cor. 9.23; 1 Th. 1.5; 2.13; 2 Th. 3.1; Phl. 1.5, 12-18, 27, 30; 2.16; Eph. 6.10-17), shows the Gospel as an active and advancing force in the world.  Thus ‘holding fast’ something so powerful and active is actually evangelistic.
Eph. 6.10-17:  Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14 Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; 16 besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

This passage is Paul’s Great Commission.

A. Spiritual warfare as resistance to temptation: (Eph. 4.27; cf. 2.2-3)

B. Spiritual warfare as proclamation:

1. Shoes for spreading the Gospel (6.15)
2. Take the sword of the Spirit in which is the word of God (6.17)
This is the only offensive weapon noted.  It is the gospel, and the power of the gospel is the Spirit.

The above table presents part of the debate over whether Paul understood only certain persons to be charged with carrying forward the mission of the Gospel—through proclamation, church planting, and the nurture of believers in the faith—or whether he saw the Church as a whole, including local churches, to be involved in this work.  My own view is that is that O’Brien has the edge on this over Bowers.  Yet I also believe that more than just the interpretation of texts is involved here. 

As I argued in my dissertation, a narrative understanding of mission eclipses mere imperatives regarding the engagement of churches in mission.  Both Paul and other believers were called to enter into the story of the mission of God.  Some, such as the apostles, fulfilled certain distinctive roles in this regard, but all found their identity in the Gospel, which is itself an expression of God’s mission in Jesus Christ.  To participate in that mission meant having the same mind that was also in Christ Jesus (Phl. 2.5).  It meant giving to the needs of others as Christ did—though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8.9).  It meant entering into his suffering (Phl. 3.10; Col. 1.24; 2 Cor. 1.4, 7).  It meant participating in the death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus (Col. 2.20-3.4). 

This participation in the Gospel is not merely a participation in the fruits of Christ’s labours; it is also a participation in the narrative of the Gospel.  Indeed, the community of believers is itself an expression of the Gospel, a telling of God’s missionary story.  The church is a story-formed community, and that story is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To be shaped by this story means, among other things, to be energized by its mission, for which the Church is given God’s empowering Spirit.  Let apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers arise for the particular task of building up the Church/church into the full stature of maturity in Christ (Eph. 4.11-13), but the Church as a whole is equally engaged in the efforts of God’s mission.

[1] Robert L. Plummer, Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2006).
[2] Rollin G. Grams, Gospel and Mission in Paul’s Ethics (unpublished PhD dissertation, Duke University, 1989).
[3] William Paul Bowers, ‘Studies in Paul’s Understanding of His Mission,’ unpublished doctoral dissertation (Cambridge University, 1976).
[4] P. T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995).
[5] V. C. Pfitzner Paul and the Agon Motif (Leiden: Brill, 1967), pp. 116-117.